Novak Djokovic: Where Does He Rank Among the All-Time Tennis Greats?

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistMarch 7, 2012

PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 03:  Novak Djokovic of Serbia celebrates a point during the men's singles semi final match between Roger Federer of Switzerland and Novak Djokovic of Serbia on day thirteen of the French Open at Roland Garros on June 3, 2011 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

If Novak Djokovic never wins another Grand Slam, he is already a Hall-of-Fame tennis player. For now, ranking Djokovic among the all-time greats is merely a snapshot in an album that could prove to be one of the most decorated careers in tennis history.

Djokovic, with colorful nicknames including Nole, The Djoker and The Serbinator, is an important representative for tennis as the current No. 1 player in the world, even if many tennis fans are still ambivalent about his character.

Currently, Djokovic is creating a new era in tennis with unique and spectacular playing skills that threaten to push aside contemporary giants. It could be just the beginning.

A National Hero

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, recent kings of tennis, were raised in relatively insulated Western Europe, products of stable families who supported their growth and tennis development. Their devotion to tennis is well-documented.

Djokovic and his family had to endure the adversities of war and political instabilities during his formative years. Yet, his family also supported and sacrificed to help provide the hours, training and coaching that would help shape him into a champion. There are stories about young Djokovic ducking into bomb shelters during practice sessions.

Serbia’s area and population is about the size of Indiana, but has boasted more than its share of great athletes over the past few decades, including NBA players Vlade Divac and Predrag Stojakovic.

It has also produced top-level tennis stars. Monica Seles, Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic have all made impressive marks in women’s tennis.

Now, Djokovic has arrived as a national hero. Sociologist Vladimir Goati, as reported by Bojana Milovanovic of SETtimes, said Djokovic’s tennis success has brought an even more positive image to Serbia. He is its most important athlete, paving a road of dreams for a rising generation seeking success.

The Few, The Proud, The Returners

Most tennis legends—such as Rod Laver, Pete Sampras and Federer—are known primarily for their offensive prowess, even though they possess excellent return games. Their objective was to use their potent offensive skills to handcuff their opponents.

Perhaps the most difficult facet of tennis is returning a great player’s best shots. Only a special talent can trademark this skill, relish its specific challenges and become the best player in the world. How does Djokovic fit in with the following players who are renowned as returners?

Some very good players such as Michael Chang, Lleyton Hewitt and Andy Murray are known primarily for their defense, though they have not channeled immortal success because they lacked a dominating offensive stroke.

A few great Grand Slam champions including Ken Rosewall and Mats Wilander were more of the backboard type—hitting the ball slow but deep to the opposing baseline, waiting for the more aggressive opponent to commit the error. This kind of player would be unable to dominate modern tennis.

NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 07:  Novak Djokovic of Serbia returns a shot against Radek Stepanek of the Czech Republic during day eight of the 2009 U.S. Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 7, 2009 in the Flushing neighborhood of
Julian Finney/Getty Images

There are only a handful of greats immediately classified as great service returners and baseline retrievers. Their careers are defined with this defensive bravado:

Jimmy Connors was a master at reading tough service deliveries and sending back hard serves. He was able to take serves out wide and keep them in play, while looking to set up his opponent with his own offense. He kept coming with relentless grit, sometimes causing offensive doubts in his opponents. It was the heart of his intimidation.

Andre Agassi’s brilliant return game was a little different. He was less likely than Connors to only try and get a ball back, but more likely to hit a clean return for a winner. He got aced more, but hit fabulous shots off of big servers. When Agassi was in shape, he carved up opponents with his precise corner-to-corner strokes and underrated footwork.

Nadal is one of  the most formidable walls ever. On clay, it is very difficult to hit a ball past him, but especially with the added element of having him morph his return into his offensive game plan. He is the epitome of defensive machismo.

Djokovic may be the best returner of them all. Like the other three, there is a fierce pride in being able to send back the opponent’s best shots. It’s the primary reason why Djokovic is so formidable as a player and competitor.

He can reach out to either side of the court with his long, sinewy limbs and save balls that would be sure winners in the normal universe of tennis. Neither backhand nor forehand is a weakness, and he sprints with the kind of long, athletic gait found in amazing wonders such as Seabiscuit and Secretariat.

If he can win several more Grand Slams and stay healthy with his physical brand of attacking defense, Djokovic may eventually set an unprecedented level for power returners.

Cracking Tennis’ Top Fifteen Players

In just over thirteen months, Djokovic has transformed a promising one-Slam career into elite five-Slam territory. Consider, only 14 players in the open era have as many as five Grand Slam wins.

Five Slams puts Djokovic ahead of third-tier champions Rosewall, Guillermo Vilas and Jim Courier. Gustavo Kuerten won all three of his Slams at the French Open but never dominated tennis the way Djokovic has.

Djokovic has won Grand Slams in three different venues, and his three Australian Open titles are surpassed only by Federer and Agassi, with four titles each. He would be listed similar to the career of John Newcombe if the measuring stick is five Grand Slam titles.

Some might argue Djokovic has now entered the bottom of second tier champions, which means company with Wilander, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, John McEnroe, Connors, Ivan Lendl and Agassi. The difference is that it took those players several years to amass their titles. Djokovic has compressed time to enter this realm.

Connors, Wilander and Djokovic are the only players of this tier to win three Grand Slams in a calendar year. Djokovic’s 2011 season ranks only with Connors’ 1974 season in terms of sheer dominance.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 12:   Rafael Nadal of Spain congratulates  Novak Djokovic of Serbia after Djokovic won the Men's Final on Day Fifteen of the 2011 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 12, 2011 in the Flushing ne
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Djokovic could be worthy of joining this group, though he still needs two or three more Slams to rank with Connors, Lendl and Agassi. It might not be long.

Though the other players in this tier claim consistent longevity, like the rock band U2, Djokovic has blazed forth with explosive impact, like the grunge band Nirvana. It remains to be seen for how long he can maintain this fire.

At this moment, it is fair to rank Djokovic somewhere between the 12th to 15th best player of all time.

How High Will the Djoker Rank?

Djokovic supporters will point out his recent coup against Nadal as his case for joining tennis’ top tier of legends. Still, Djokovic would need to replicate his recent dominance for another two or three years to join the career accomplishments of Laver, Borg, Sampras, Federer and Nadal.

Like many of the great legends, Djokovic needs to add the French Open title to his résumé. This will be a tough task with the French Open’s gruelling cost of endurance. There are patient clay-court specialists to outlast. It usually requires fresh legs and stamina. Most of all, it currently requires beating Nadal, one of the two masters for this surface.

Djokovic had great success in the 2011 clay-court season, highlighted by titles in Madrid and Rome against Nadal. Were it not for Federer’s semifinal win at the French Open, Djokovic quite possibly could have won the title and a calendar Grand Slam.

In addition, Djokovic needs multiple titles at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Much of the reason for Federer’s highly acclaimed career is his incredible domination at three different Grand Slam arenas. So far, Djokovic has completed a legendary mark only at the Australian Open.

If Djokovic continues his current streak for another few years, winning at least five or six more Grand Slams, he will have the accomplishments to join company with Sampras and Federer. A calendar Grand Slam in 2012 would hasten this track.

There are plenty of obstacles and determined players who will try to derail the Serbian Express. Injuries, burnout, age and distractions are battles every player must face. There is little to no room for the top player to falter. Everyone wants his crown.

There are the proven legends Federer and Nadal, who will not relent in their quests for more Grand Slams, and there are hungry players like Andy Murray and Juan Martin Del Potro, who could be a break or two away from starting their own run. Talented newcomers are pushing hard to join the fray.

Djokovic may have just proven his potential for tennis immortality with his indelible win at the 2012 Australian Open. He proved to be a champion with stamina, heart and courage, one who could defeat another legend in the most dire of circumstances.

The scary thing for his opponents is that the Serbinator may just be getting started. How much can he improve?

Win or lose, the world will be watching Djokovic.


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